Dying Without Killing: Self-Immolations,
Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriv-
eling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning
flesh… Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now
gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions,
too bewildered to even think. (Halberstam 1965: 211)
David Halberstam, an American journalist, witnessed the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc on 11 June 1963 (see also Browne 1965, 1993). It began when a Buddhist procession stopped at a major intersection in Saigon. The elderly monk assumed the lotus position; other monks doused him with petrol. He set himself alight. A student, Chân Không (1993: 38), watched him sitting bravely and peacefully, enveloped in flames. He was completely still, while those of us around him were crying and prostrating ourselves on the sidewalk.' This act was a dramatic escalation of conflict with the dictatorship of President Ngo Dinh Diem, which had persistently favoured the country's Catholic minority. A month earlier, police killed several Buddhist demonstrators. Before closing my eyes to go to Buddha', wrote Quang Duc, 'I have the honour to present my words to President Diem, asking him to be kind and tolerant towards his people and enforce a policy of religious equality' (quoted in Joiner 1964: 918).
This is my type specimen of self-immolation'. Like a suicidal attack, an act of self-immolation involves an individual intentionally killing himself or herself (or at least gambling with death) on behalf of a collective cause. Unlike a suicidal attack, an act of self-immolation is not intended to cause physical harm to anyone else or to inflict material damage.1 The suicidal attack is an extraordinary weapon of war whereas self-immolation is an extreme form of protest. As an act of protest, it is intended to be public in at least one of two senses: performed in a public place in view of other people, or accompanied by a written letter addressed to political figures or to the general public. One point of terminology should be clarified at the outset.